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Central Standard

Why Getting Kids To Class Is Such A Struggle For Kansas City Public Schools

Elle Moxley
Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell visits students at J.A. Rogers Elementary. Students at the school who have perfect attendance at the school are entered into a drawing for a bike each month.

Kansas City Public Schools Superintendent Mark Bedell concedes he’s not sure what it’s going to take to improve attendance.

Missouri uses what’s known as the 90/90 rule. Districts need to get 90% of students to school 90% of the time to get all of the attendance points on their Annual Performance Report (APR). KCPS didn’t get any attendance points for the 2018-19 school year because only 73% of students were at school 90% of the time.

“In the three years I’ve been here,” said Bedell, who took over the district in 2016, “I have yet to crack 80%.”

Bedell calls it a “triple whammy” – if kids don’t come to school, they don’t succeed academically, the district doesn’t get funding and the state penalizes KCPS in accreditation calculations.

“I’ve never seen attendance issues like this, and it really hurts us,” Bedell said last week, after the district missed the mark for full accreditation again. “I’ve never worked in a state where attendance is used as part of your calculations for accreditation.”

The intense pressure to get kids to school is why some KCPS employees falsified attendance data between 2013 and 2016, the three school years immediately prior to Bedell’s tenure as superintendent. The attendance scandal wasn’t what kept the district from getting accreditation this year, but getting kids – and their parents – to see the importance of coming to school every day remains a challenge.

“For districts like mine, with similar demographics and similar community blight, they’re getting zero points on attendance, too,” Bedell said. “This is bigger than what superintendents can control. We have the zip code ... with the most evictions in the state of Missouri. Those kids are going to experience a lot of hardships.”

These days, Tiffany Anderson has the top job in the Topeka Public Schools on the Kansas side of the state line, but she’s familiar with Missouri’s 90/90 rule from her days as superintendent of the Jennings School District outside St. Louis.

“All of the social determinants of health – that's housing and healthcare and food and all of those things – really play into how you can get students to school, particularly when you have a high poverty population,” Anderson said on KCUR’s Central Standard. “Those are real barriers, but kids are counting on us to make this thing happen, and parents and communities are as well.”

Under Anderson’s leadership, the Jennings School District opened a food pantry, a homeless shelter and a health clinic. Attendance improved to over 90%.

Anderson said when elementary students don’t come to school, that’s an adult problem.

“It’s not the student’s decision,” Anderson said. “(That’s why) if a student misses two days without parent contact, we do a home visit. We don’t need to wait five days or whatever the policy might say. We want to go there immediately because it’s often an indication of things like health issues or poverty-related issues or incarceration.”

Elementary students who miss even 10% of days – remember, the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education doesn’t penalize schools until attendance slips below 90% –  can fall behind academically. Cecelia Leong is the director of programs for Attendance Works, a public policy organization that’s trying to tackle chronic absenteeism. She says those same kids will start making the choice in middle and high school to cut class because they’re struggling academically.

“If your foundation is shaky, and you continue to be absent, by middle school you’re starting to fail classes,” Leong said. “And we see students by high school with poor attendance are really on track to drop out.”

This is where KCPS really struggles. Elementary students can be persuaded to come to school with the promise of a pizza party or "atten-DANCE" in the gym, but those tactics don’t really work with teenagers.

“You start with making sure you have a great school climate,” Leong said, “so that kids want to come to school.”

Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.